Performance #21:Once More with the Banjo!

This Saturday  (11/26)I went to a matinee performance of Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward theatre. If you’ve ever seen a movie with Dick Van Dyke or Tommy Steele, then just imagine a full-blown musical catered to that style of music, dance, and comedy. It originates from a novel by H.G. Wells, but then was adapted as a vehicle for British star Tommy Steele, and was brought to the stage! It was two and half hours of huge dance numbers, beautiful set changes, a heart filled with joy and leaving with a jig in your step.

Because this show was written as a vehicle for Tommy Steele, I feel like I should talk about him for a bit. America had Dick Van Dyke at the same time that Tommy Steele was taking over British pop culture. Although through testimony and YouTube videos, I can firmly say that Tommy Steele was even more broad and showy than the already silly Dick Van Dyke!

These actors must go through life with a lot of jaw pain because of how much they hold a wide smile across their faces. So, Charlie Stemp, who plays the role made for Steele has a large amount of pressure to emulate this larger than life persona during this show.                ( Luckily so far he’s been receiving rave reviews.) I think many theatre prudes would say that this style of acting is very fake, grandiose, and untruthful, but not all theatre has to push us into depressive comas about our lack of racial awareness.

Half a Sixpence is a musical about a young orphan, Arthur Kipps, who becomes suddenly rich through a deceased relative. He is forced into the posh world of haughty laughter and raised pinkies while he left his heart in the slums of London. He becomes torn between his sweetheart from home, Anne, and the woman “too good for him” which is Helen. In the end he chooses the woman he is most comfortable with, Anne, and they get married and everyone is happy happy joy joy. It’s a pretty basic tale of rags to riches and the moral that happiness cannot be bought.

I’d like to continue on the subject of judgmental theatre-goers, because I feel like I talk with a lot of them in my own age group. In my background, not many people grow up seeing profound theatre, rather you grow up seeing these beautifully (and sometimes painfully) over-the-top musicals. Once we hit college we learn about different genres, styles of acting, and even star in one, and suddenly we push aside these shows as unworthy of our viewing. Musicals are often seen (by some groups of people) as a guilty pleasure, or a secret of your social life that should not be shared. This, of course, is ridiculous for many reasons. Do we notice how much work these young performers, designers, and technicians put into these shows, so how can we so easily discount that? Musical theatre is often about the spectacle, so give them praise for pulling off some incredible pieces of magic. There are young people singing a high A flat whilst doing a twirling barrel roll (made up move, hopefully) and still carrying a smile on their face. You know what I would look like if this mashed potato body did that? Well, it would for sure be comedic, let me tell you. I just urge myself and others to remember how incredible these shows can be, so don’t just assume that all musicals are  like The Phantom of the Opera. 

Speaking of grandiose musical numbers, this show was no exception. It was a surprisingly small cast, but most of the actors/singers/dancers were in each dance number. One of the best numbers was Pick Out a Simple Tune, where Arthur Kipps (main character) pulls out his banjo and begins to teach those posh-o’s about the world of rhythm. I must admit it seemed a little odd to watch all of these white people twitching and gyrating with a look of profound confusion on their faces as the song continued. Seemed a little “white people can’t dance” to me, but it was still pretty funny. What was really great about this song was their use of props as instruments.

The scene was set in a parlor, so there were cups, bottles, and drink mixers that were used as shakers and clinky-things throughout the song.  (image above) The energy displayed by every actor was incredible, especially Charlie Stemp. With every song he was flipping and spinning and kicking and you name it, and at no point did he look tired, which is quite an accomplishment. He’s a young spry fella, but I wonder what six months of eight shows a week will do to your body. Even the older members of the cast were hoppin’ and twirlin’ along with the young folk. I don’t know why my mountain really came out in that statement, but I like it so I’m going to keep it, gosh darn it. I’d like to know what elixir these people drink to keep their energies up between shows, because I remember doing two shows (on a Saturday) of Peter Pan as a kid and I was ex-haus-ted. Props to you who can manage that lifestyle.

I am mainly a fan of what is called Golden Age musical theatre, like Oaklahoma!, A Little Night Music, or South Pacific. I want to classify Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but I really can’t since it was a film before it was adapted for the stage, but that’s another good example of my musical preferences. In these older musicals there is a style of singing that is more operatic than the more pop-singer style that is popular now. The two female ingenues Anne and Helen were good examples of the two styles of singing.  Anne had a very clear nasal voice that was a very pop-musical theatre voice, similar to many leads on Broadway right now. Helen had a more Golden Age voice, with a more defined vibrato and not as much wideness in her voice like Anne. There are pros and cons to both styles, and some come more naturally than others. Of all the things to evolve over time, I never would’ve speculated that it would be singing styles within theatre.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this style of musical is watching the character actors. The two most prominent character actors were Flo, the friend of Anne and Arthur, and James Walsinham/ Photographer. Flo was just far enough over the top to be silly but not annoying. Her characterization was specific and constant throughout, and she never outshone her scene partner. Don’t get me wrong, she was very good, but she shared the scene well with her other actors. James Walsinham/ Photographer was definitely a very memorable part of this show. Both of his hair pieces were used so well with mop-like actions as he cocked his head back and forth. When he played the Photographer his movements and voice were so ostentatious and exuberant that I couldn’t help but keep my eyes on him for the whole song. He stuck to two or three really specific choices that worked instead of aiming for a laugh at any possibility. Because of the constant characteristics it also made him more believable as a character. As someone who is no stranger to character actor roles, it was a great learning experience to watch these performers and take notes from their techniques. There was an actor who I recognized from a performance of the musical Top Hat that I saw with my aunt in Dublin in 2015. John Conroy, this actor, played an extremely funny butler in Top Hat, but in Sixpence he played the store keeper Mr. Shoffield and a butler in the second act. I guess it’s not that big of a coincidence, but it was so cool to recognize him from a previous performance and a previous trip!

Usually in the love triangles in romantic comedies, I usually forget the woman or man who is dropped for the real love interest. But when Arthur broke his engagement to Helen to go and marry Anne, I was a little mad, actually. Most times the other person goes “right-o, I understand, have a nice life.” but because of Helen’s obvious sadness at the break, it made me really care for her. It may not be in the script, but it was a really nice and memorable choice made for the character. It made me dislike the main character a tad, or maybe it just made me question his motives a little bit, which doesn’t usually happen in musicals. Funny how a small vocal intonation and turn of the body can totally change the meaning of a scene.

As I was watching the show, I started to look around the stage and I suddenly thought:


Throughout the entire first act I was searching for one person of color,someone, anyone, please! With so many actors of all races that are all dying to be cast, it seems really strange to me that this cast was all white. There are no reasons given by the script why the casting must be white, so is it purely the unconscious decision of the casting director? Most likely. Hopefully not a conscious decision. I don’t think it’s incredibly rude of me to bring it up, because I honestly think it’s quite an antiquated thought about casting, and really all the shows we’ve seen up to this have seemingly been casting on talent rather than talent and skin tone. It’s unfortunate that I feel like I have to talk about this, because it seems like a common notion that most people would share by 2016.

With that last thought pushed aside, I did highly enjoy this performance. It was brimming with joyful energy and was a really well polished show. I’m glad I got a break from some of the melancholy shows I’ve been seeing this semester.



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